Monday 7th August, 2006

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Brutality from protectors can’t be tolerated

Accompanying the upsurge in criminal violence, there has been a vigorous response by the police and other arms of the national security services. Sometimes, the force of the official response has saved lives, as it did when a Digicel outlet was terrorised by young robbers this week.

But sometimes, things simply go wrong.

The shooting of forklift driver Shazad Mohammed on a fishing lime, allegedly by members of the Coast Guard, and the beating and torture of Hindu nawh Rabindranath Choon on Friday share one chilling element.

Both witnesses to the incident involving Mohammed and the victim Choon claim they were attacked by people out of uniform who acted, according to their accusers, without provocation or apparent reason.

Choon’s family hasn’t even been able to make a report on the incident, with officers from the Oropouche Station, in which the pundit’s assistant claims he was held for three hours and tortured, refusing to take a statement and officers in San Fernando sending the family back to the Oropouche police.

In Charlieville, Mohammed’s hometown, the witnesses to the killing are living in terrified silence, even as their community rises in anger against the incident.

In March, the Ramsumairs, of Poona Village, Williamsville, claimed officers out of uniform jumped their gate, smashed glass louvres and kicked in the front door as part of their arrest procedures. The family, mostly children and elderly citizens, called on Commissioner of Police Trevor Paul to investigate the way the suspect, Valentino, was taken from their home.

In recent months, the United States has also wrestled with the “knock and announce” procedure for gaining access to a suspect’s home, balancing respect for civilian privacy against the need for officers, who always face the unknown in situations like this, to move quickly and effectively.

But at least, there is a procedure.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there is no common consensus understanding of how a police officer or any other official of the protective services, particularly one working out of uniform, should approach a suspect. This gives officers of the law an advantage, but it’s one that puts the ordinary citizen at a thorough disadvantage and leaves open to question how one should respond to someone in plainclothes, armed with a gun.

This kind of uncertainty ensures that the Police Complaints Authority, already overburdened to the point of ineffectuality, will continue to field a flood of concerns from the very people the police have pledged to protect and serve.

The passing in April 2006 of a revised Police Complaints Authority Bill, is supposed to create a revamped Police Complaints Authority, one led with at least the appearance of independence.

The act specifically disallows the appointment of either a director or deputy director who has either been in politics or in the police service and requires a consensus decision of the President, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader.

The bill, passed unanimously in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, must now evolve quickly from words on paper into a more potent ombudsman for the people.

But there’s nothing stopping either the Minister of National Security or the Commissioner of Police from responding to the outrage that these and other incidents have provoked.

An immediate review of the way officers are executing their duties and the institution of common sense standards to govern the way challenges and searches are managed in the field would go some distance in creating common ground between our protectors that those they have undertaken a duty to protect.

For some, such a code of conduct will mean the difference between fear and confidence in the stewards of the law. For others, it’s a matter of life and death.


©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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